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As I was born and raised in Coventry, I know what it's like for a city to latch on to a heroic female historical icon and peddle it for all it's worth. While we know a lot more about Joan of Arc than we do about Lady Godiva, I often wonder what Joan would have made about all the films, museums, and paintings based on her life. Would she have filled her home with keyrings, coasters and ornaments of herself, or would she have denounced it all as decadent and idolatrous?
It was with this in mind that I visited Rouen in northern France, Joan of Arc's home city and capital of the Haute-Normandie (Upper Normandy) region. Getting there is very easy from Paris and by booking several weeks in advance I was able to get a day return for Euro24. Book online and the SNCF (the French rail operator) will post you your tickets or alternatively you can use a code to print them off at yellow machines in the station. There are roughly two trains an hour from Paris's St Lazare station and the trip takes between an hour and twenty and an hour and forty minutes depending on the service.
The train takes you to Rouen's Rive Droite station, which is only a short walk from the city's major sites. I had two slight concerns about my day in Rouen. Firstly I arrived at about 11am and I'd reserved to travel back to Paris at around 7.30pm- this gave me over 8 hours to kill! Secondly, I'd booked to come on a Monday, a known day in France for museums and galleries to be closed. I went straight to the tourist office, where the friendly staff informed me that only a few museums were closed but most were open. It appears that museums close on a 'rotation' basis meaning that you will always find plenty of them open regardless of the day of the week.
The tourist office was only a stone's throw from Rouen Cathedral, perhaps the city's most famous landmark and the subject of a very famous Monet painting. It's worth noting that on Mondays it doesn't open until 2pm so I had to come back later. When you go inside, you're struck by the sheer height of the roof which is a triumph of medieval engineering. For me the most beautiful windows aren't instantly visible when you walk in- they're at the far end of the nave but are obscured by pillars. Take the time to go round to the back and you're sure to like what you see!
A short walk away, through Rouen's pedestrianised cobbled streets and timper-fronted buildings is La Place du Vieux Marché which is the most imposing square in Rouen. Here you'll find the Joan of Arc museum, which has waxworks depicting her life and exhibits of her portrayal in popular culture (Euro5 entry fee). In truth the museum was a bit of a low-budget affair but that was part of its charm. The English commentary was a little hard to follow but their were impressive scenes constructed of the siege of Orléans, the royal court and Joan's eventual demise at the hands of those rotten English...
The square also has an impressive modern church devoted to Joan of Arc, built in the shape of an upturned viking longship. It only takes 5 minutes to look round but it's very impressive inside with one wall made up almost entirely of stained glass depicting scenes from Joan's life. Continue around the old town and you'll see Joan of Arc's name plastered around on numerous bars, eateries and souvenir shops. The old town also leads downhill to the river Seine although for me this part of the river was a little industrial (the cold wind didn't help either) so I didn't dwell for too long there.
The city's Musée des Beaux-Arts is the biggest art gallery in Rouen and is a very impressive building constructed around a glass-roofed court that doubles as an upscale restaurant. The museum has an extensive collection of art from Renaissance to modernism, and is free for under-25s with an EU passport. Another highlight was the Joan of Arc dungeon, which is on the way back up the hill to the railway station (a giant turret- you can't miss it). This is where Joan was imprisoned and questioned by the English and also played a role as a guard tower during the Second World War. The man on the front desk was very chatty indeed and gave me all the information I needed. The only disappointment was that after climbing all the steps to the roof, you can't see out through the wooden scaffolding that holds it up. The range of exhibits was also pretty sparse but it's a charming enough building (presumably Joan would disagree).
Eight hours passed in no time. I'd definitely like to come to Rouen again, perhaps in the summer as I know it has very nice botanical gardens and the main square would be a great place for a coffee. A great day trip from Paris or a stopping off point if you're driving south from the port at Le Havre. Not such a great place if you have an aversion to a certain French saint...